ANYONE who witnessed a live performance by Martyn Bennett during the 1990s will recall a dreadlocked bagpipe-playing dervish who, by his own admission, was a hell-raiser. It was a persona that led to proclamations of a new Gael music messiah, with techno knobs on.
A few years later and that frenetic image is out of synch with the reflective, cropped-haired, married man of 2003. Nursing a glass of warm water, with his pretty, elfin features accentuated by a bulky knitted jumper, the 32-year-old explains the multi-layered meanings in his new CD Grit that was both painful and cathartic to record.
"A piece of grit is what causes the abnormal shell to produce the beautiful pearl," he says. "But cancer is like a piece of grit in your soul. Grit is also rock salt, an old medicine."
Three years ago Bennett was diagnosed with a form of Hodgkin’s disease that has turned his life upside down. One angry response to his illness was an increasing alienation and destruction of his trademark pipes and fiddle. "Yes," says Bennett. "I killed ‘my babies’ earlier this year. It was the destruction of everything I was."
Despite the chemotherapy, radiotherapy, stem-cell therapy and a bone marrow transplant, however, Bennett has produced a most elegiac and life-affirming CD. Bringing together old recordings of beautiful keening voices from Roma and Gaelic singers against a backdrop of electronica, the results are original and emotional. It is a dramatic personal and musical journey.
Born in Canada to a Welsh geologist, musician father and a Scottish folklorist singing mother, Bennett spent the first six years of his life in Newfoundland among Gaelic speakers, before he and his mother returned home to Kingussie. Yet, despite his mother’s immersion in the folk movement, it is a history teacher Bennett credits as his true inspiration. "I was really below average academically for a lot of my life and it wasn’t really till I knew this amazing teacher, David Taylor, who taught me piping when I was 11 that I felt here was something I could do really well," he says.
Buoyed with new-found confidence, Bennett became a regular alongside at summer folk festivals. It was a welcome change to school. "I was a real social misfit but I really loved playing with these nice folkie people in this great environment," he says.
When he was accepted at Edinburgh’s Broughton music school aged 14, Bennett thrived in his new milieu. He describes these wonder years in glowing terms. "Before that I thought I’d leave school early and work in a pottery, but Broughton was major for me. I was really thrown in at the deep end with these classical musicians and suddenly had to read and write music and the theory of music and play the violin and piano."
Grinning ecstatically, he clarifies the impact of this experience. "It was fantastic. An explosion of learning that was without doubt the best time in my life."
Unfortunately, his time at Glasgow’s Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama sucked this youthful vigour dry with a self-imposed regime of 12 hour a day violin practise. "I tipped the scales there," Bennett says. "I’m an extreme person and became a full-on obsessive-compulsive dedicated classical musician. It was too much, too soon and too fast. It was all my own fault."
In retrospect he believes this intense pressure precipitated the testicular cancer he developed in his final year. Thankfully, six months later he had recovered from his first bout of cancer and embarked on what he dubs "my yee-ha years". Busking and playing festivals round Europe was to prove liberating after the constraints and repression of music academy. "I went nuts and it was like getting wings. I was a hell-raiser in a nice way," he says.
It also marked the nascent tinkerings with the electronica that would find its way on to his debut CD, Bothy Culture, in 1997, though this accidental development had purely commercial roots. "As a busker I knew I had to catch people by being loud, so I built a speaker, got a car battery, an amp and made up these really cheesy pseudo rave type backing tracks while I played the pipes over them," he says. "The neds in Argyll Street loved it."
Soon the dreadlocked Bennett found himself spearheading a movement that blended traditional music with club culture. The public and press slavered over this new talent when Bothy Culture was followed by Hardland in 2000. Reflecting on those happy, hell-raising times, a subdued Bennett attributes his current physical condition to earlier self damage. "You can do stuff in life that is very exciting without realising that where that leads is very scary," he warns. "Drugs for example. I haven’t taken a lot but I did discover marijuana and it put me on a God trip. I got huge insights and all these recordings you mentioned [not including Grit] were all written on dope, I’m afraid to say.
"It’s not right, because at the end of the day you’ve got to pay a price for getting high. I crashed down and now I’m at a point in my life where I’ve got one foot in the grave and one foot in life."
Before moving to Mull with his wife Kirsten earlier this year, Bennett renounced all conventional medical intervention. Though in pain daily, the musician felt liberated by his faith in what he self-mockingly dubs, "New Age bullshit", such as the carefully prepared meals, antioxidants and teetotal lifestyle. Offering to show me his body scars, Bennett speculates on his life span matter-of-factly. "The only way they can tell me how long I’ve got to live is if they open me up again. I’m not going to allow them to do that because I’ve got huge scars all over my body."
He is convinced the key to overcoming his cancer is locked into surmounting his own anger and psyche. "For some people it is medicine but for me it’s all about getting on top of what’s in my head. I will never find liberation from this illness till I find peace."
Given the outward image of a serene, thoughtful musician, anger seems an alien concept to such a young man. Where does it come from? "I don’t know. Maybe my genes," he suggests. "I just think certain catalysts happen in your life and set it off and you can’t control it. For me it was going down that dark path of ambition."
Bennett struggles to explain his guilt at what he perceives as holding back his wife, saying: "She is 32 and the woman I would conjure up in any of my ideal woman dreams. We tried for children earlier but my sperm is fried with all that chemo. So you know, I’m a hard candidate to live with and she’s had to live with me through all this.
I really couldn’t have survived without her."
As for the future, Bennett is hoping to pursue an interest in precenting, the unaccompanied style of singing psalms. Other than that, the unlikely angry man seems content to people-watch. "It’s strange, this illness has really stripped away a layer of myself so now I like watching and understanding other people."
And with that he zips up his jacket and steps out into the night.
• Grit is out on Realworld. Martyn Bennett, Artworks Scotland is on BBC2, tonight, 10pm